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Blind Ambition

Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind person to reach the summit of Mount Everest, is on a mission to get other would-be adventurers with disabilities to see what’s possible

Author Buddy Levy


Portraits: Matt Nager


FOR WEIHENMAYER, Via Ferrata is a cakewalk. He’s one of just a few hundred people to have climbed the Seven Summits—the highest peak on each of the seven continents. In 2001, he became the first blind person to conquer Mount Everest, which landed him on the cover of Time. And at 45 years old, he’s not finished yet. At the moment, he’s training to solo-kayak the Grand Canyon—226 miles of some of the most dangerous whitewater rapids in the world. Even Weihenmayer is a little daunted by his next adventure. A little.  

But he doesn’t do all this for fame or glory, he says. He is on a quest to demonstrate that a cognitive or physical disability does not have to consign a person to a life without adventure and meaning. “One of the big challenges for people [with disabilities] is getting unstuck,” he says. “Something happens to them and they crawl into a dark hole, surrounded by a brick wall, and they stay there.”

Having been blind since the age of 13, due to a rare disease called hereditary juvenile retinoschisis, Weihenmayer knows that feeling well. He is practical enough to understand, though, that escaping the so-called “dark hole” is not simply a matter of willpower. So, in 2005, he co-founded a biennial summit called No Barriers, which aims to bring people with disabilities and those developing technologies that can help them achieve their dreams together. The Via Ferrata climb is part of this year’s summit, which is taking place at nearby Mountain Village.

In addition to learning how to navigate craggy rock faces, the 600-odd attendees can take clinics in mountain-biking, paddleboarding, kayaking and fly fishing. These activities, in turn, are aided by such inventions as hand-cranked mountain bikes, a kayak called the Bellyak (which you paddle lying on your belly) and Sidestix (forearm crutches suitable for all terrains). At the extreme end of the spectrum, there’s a headset camera that “translates” images into sensations on the tongue, allowing blind people to “see” in a new way, and a hi-tech exoskeleton that can help the wheelchair-bound walk again.

As he strolls through the main floor of the Telluride Conference Center, Weihenmayer stops and listens attentively as various summit attendees approach him with their own stories of overcoming adversity. Fifteen-year-old Jack Weinstein, for example, who also has retinoschisis, says that nothing has seemed impossible since he learned of Weihenmayer’s adventures. Weinstein adds that he has plans to partake in the upcoming Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon, which includes a swim across the choppy waters of San Francisco Bay, and will dedicate the feat to Weihenmayer. Between these impromptu testimonials, the sharing of which is part of the therapy here at the summit, Weihenmayer tells me more about the mission of No Barriers.

“We’re aiming to help people who are not equipped to get out of that hole, or through or over the brick wall,” he says. “Too often, they look through a rearview mirror at their former life, and they focus on what they had before, and they can’t move forward. They’re stuck.

“We help these people get unstuck through inspiration, sure,” he continues, “but inspiration coupled with tools and skills and new ways of working with people. Those who are stuck need teaching, training, innovation and technological advancements to help them. All the inspiration in the world won’t get Amanda Boxtel out of her wheelchair and up walking—but inspiration plus an exoskeleton will.”

3 Responses to “Blind Ambition”

  1. Bryan Brown Says:
    December 10th, 2013 at 11:07 pm

    This has already been done. Here’s the press release:

    Blind Hoosier Kayaker Runs Grand Canyon

    Lonnie Bedwell Completes Epic Whitewater First with Team River Runner

    On August 21, 2013, U.S. Navy veteran Lonnie Bedwell became the first blind kayaker to solo the Grand Canyon, which is well established as one of the most challenging whitewater venues in the world. Bedwell traveled in the company of Team River Runner, a kayaking organization designed to help American veterans cope with serious injuries. The Grand Canyon has a well-earned reputation as one of the most challenging whitewater venues in the world, and requires boating skills that generally require years to develop. Once Mr. Bedwell, who lost his eyesight 16 years ago in a hunting accident, focused his attention upon kayaking, however, he developed the necessary boat-handling skills in roughly one year by practicing in the pond on his Sullivan-County, Indiana, property. He also undertook training on various well-known whitewater stretches in the Appalachian foothills.

    The Grand Canyon trip, which took 16 days to complete, involved three additional whitewater kayakers who were sighted, and who coached Lonnie through some 200 highly demanding (Class IV and Class V) rapids with voice commands that he was somehow able to hear over the roaring of the rapids. One paddler generally preceded Lonnie through a set of rapids (occasionally backwards to facilitate communications), and two paddlers followed him closely to be readily available in case he capsized in the waves, which can range from 3 feet to roughly 30 feet in height depending upon the rapid.

    Mr. Bedwell, who is highly involved in a number of other outdoor activities as well as kayaking, thanks Team River Runner for its efforts on his behalf and actively supports the organization in its endeavors to help his fellow veterans recover from their injuries.

    Contact Information
    Lonnie Bedwell
    7794 E County Road 250 S
    Dugger, IN 47848-8117
    Telephone: 812-648-2373
    e-mail: lonnie.r.bedwell@att.net

    Links for Review




  2. Theresa Says:
    December 13th, 2013 at 10:36 am

    I read this article on a flight this week and was totally inspired. Thank you for sharing Weihenmayer’s story.

  3. sandra Carol Says:
    February 13th, 2014 at 1:06 am

    Thanks for sharing this blog

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